There’s a sequence in Robert Pirsig’s classic philosophical treatise Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that finds the narrator and his young son hiking up a mountain. And when I say hiking up a mountain, I mean hiking up a mountain — it’s been years since I read the book, but if I’m remembering correctly, they’re near or above the treeline on a pretty high range, up where the air gets thin and physical exertion gets more difficult.
Pirsig’s trudging up the mountain a step at a time, pacing himself on the journey, while watching his son try to bulldog the hike, growing more and more frustrated as they go on. The kid is attacking the mountain, it’s wearing him out, and Pirsig wants to try and counsel him to slow down, but his advice falls on stubbornly deaf ears. It starts to cast a pall over their little adventure.
It also prompts a long internal monologue for Pirsig, the point of which is essentially that if you approach a task with nothing but single-minded determination to complete it, you’re cheating yourself out of the experience — even if you knock it out of the park, by the time you’re done, you’ve given yourself nothing but the fleeting satisfaction of accomplishing a nominal goal, and in order to fill yourself up again, you just have to keep finding new finish lines to chase. It’s sort of a highfalutin way of saying “slow and steady wins the race,” but it still has the ring of truth.
I thought of this section of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance a lot while watching 2020’s The Kid Detective, which is essentially a feature-length riff on the question “What would happen if Encyclopedia Brown peaked at 12 and grew up to be a disappointment?” There are no mountains in the movie and nobody hikes anywhere, unless you call the main character dragging his own naked body out of a dumpster the morning after a wild night of partying a “hike,” but this is very much a film concerned with the deceptive gulf between external and internal validation, and the pursuit of potentially quixotic goals in the name of elusive personal satisfaction. In at least one meaningful respect, it’s one of the most brutally honest movies I can remember seeing. It’s also dark as fuck, all of which makes it pretty darn great Some Guy Cinema, even if it was released last year and it stars an actor mainly known for his work on The O.C.
Having never watched that show, I don’t know very much about Adam Brody as an actor, but I’ve read enough to understand that he isn’t exactly widely regarded as a dramatic heavyweight — which makes him perfect for the role of Abe Applebaum, the titular kid detective who was the toast of his idyllic little town as a pre-pubescent sleuth, but fell from grace after he failed to crack the case of an abducted classmate. Shaken by the ordeal, Abe spirals, along with the town. When we meet him as an adult, he’s in his early 30s, still working as a detective — and his cases still typically involve nothing more serious than a missing cat. He drinks too much, he has a roommate who barely tolerates him, his parents bring him groceries and fret over his non-existent prospects, town residents who once admired him now eye him with thinly veiled contempt, and he can’t go to the local bar without getting his ass kicked by the guy he caught stealing money from the school when they were both kids.
Like I said — perfect Some Guy.
Of course, there’s nothing all that narratively compelling about a guy schlubbing it up and pissing away his potential, so it isn’t long before The Kid Detective plops Abe down at a crossroads: He’s asked to investigate the death of a local teen. The boy’s girlfriend, Caroline (Sophie Nélisse), is convinced it was murder; Abe, still haunted by the disappearance of his former classmate/crush/secretary Gracie Gulliver, agrees to take the case, determined to redeem himself. The people in his life are having none of it, of course — his parents tail him on the case, convinced he’s in over his head; his mall goth secretary rolls her eyes at him just as hard as she ever did; the teens he interviews while trying to solve the murder treat him like the shabby interloper that he actually sort of is.
The net effect is beguilingly weird. The Kid Detective shouldn’t work anywhere near as well as it does, because it plays a lot of things for laughs even as the film itself is actually fairly serious, and that kind of tonal blend is extraordinarily difficult to pull off. In some respects, it’s a little like watching Rian Johnson’s Brick, only if instead of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the main character was a guy in his 30s who was inexplicably interacting with high school students all of the time — a sunny suburban noir that suspends disbelief just enough to give you the comfort of a heightened reality while it’s depicting some fairly disgusting human behavior.
Brody, it must be said, is probably too stereotypically handsome to be a true blue Some Guy, but he acquits himself admirably here, underscoring his performance with palpable self-loathing and committing to every morally debased act Abe undertakes, whether it’s slapping a kid around or doing street drugs or the aforementioned dumpster nap. He’s cute enough to carry a whiff of the child prodigy Abe is supposed to have been, but he’s also dented and rumpled enough to sidle up to the bar alongside Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe.
He does eventually solve the case, by the way — and although I’m not here to spoil anything, I can say that it’s Abe’s long-awaited redemption that really put me in mind of that section from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This is a small film, I guess, but it’s one with the courage to stand up and call bullshit on the notion that doing anything can really heal anyone’s emotional scars — instead, it bravely and rather gut-wrenchingly suggests that the fucked-up person you were before you made that dream come true is still the same one you’ll have to wake up with the morning after it finally happens. The film’s final shot, in particular, is a real kick in the nuts, and if you end up watching the movie after you read this, I’d love to hear how it left you when the credits started to roll. Until then, I’m giving this four out of five Scheiders.